Central Asia can play an integral part in reversing the decline of Global Britain
Last month, the Biden administration’s national security strategy reaffirmed that, despite the upheaval in Europe over this past year, Asia is the United States’ most important foreign policy priority. Their read on the future of geopolitics is telling.
The underlying premise of the American strategic approach is the same one that underpinned our own Integrated Review: that the “Asian century” is well underway, and that in the decades to come, the way we respond to the continent’s development will shape our global role.
Britain is, of course, on a slightly different playing field to the US. While our eastern tilt remains a priority, we cannot lose sight of our primary geopolitical rival at this moment: Russia. Alongside our continued commitments to our European partners – Ukraine in particular – this requires a more creative approach towards our overarching Asia strategy.
Britain’s global role as a staunch defender of democracy and the rules-based order can prevent us from becoming a second-rate power
One region deserving more attention and resources is Central Asia, following major sea changes in the region over the last year.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the grip of the Kremlin over the stans of Central Asia has weakened. What some insiders have termed a “recalibration” away from the post-1989 consensus is well underway – mostly manifesting itself in subtle manoeuvres. These have ranged from abstentions at the UN, carefully worded repudiations of Kremlin readouts, deliberate public overtures to other powers, even as far as no-shows at Vladimir Putin’s birthday parties.
At times, resistance has been more overt. In July, Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev refused to recognise Russia’s claims in the Donbas, while on stage next to Putin himself at a forum in St. Petersburg. In October, Tajik president Emomali Rahmon demanded “respect” from Putin at a Central Asia-Russia summit in Astana.
A realignment of the region’s geopolitical relationships is underway as they recalibrate their foreign policy away from sole reliance on Russia. What remains to be seen is what the role for new partners outside their immediate neighbourhood will be.
This creates a real strategic opportunity for Britain to advance our interests in a region outside our traditional sphere of influence – one with steadily growing economic importance, and vital reserves of natural resources (outside of oil and gas, the region is well-placed to be a green energy powerhouse through hydrogen, wind, and solar, and is home to much of the world’s uranium and critical rare earths).
The region, as a whole, is in a state of flux. In Kazakhstan, major political reforms have been introduced, with the aim of transitioning from a super-presidential system to a more inclusive parliamentary democracy which better supports its citizens. In Uzbekistan, the constraints of its post-Soviet command economy are finally being lifted under new leadership. In Kyrgyzstan, previously considered the region’s most democratic state, there has been a worrying backslide towards repression and authoritarianism in recent years.
At these critical, uncertain moments at which economies and political systems are being reshaped, we must make the case for democracy and liberalism, rather than allowing this critical region to edge closer towards China, Turkey, and the Middle East. Britain’s global role as a staunch defender of democracy and the rules-based order can prevent us from becoming a second-rate power.
What steps can Britain realistically take? The crucial principle in our post-Brexit policy, as set out in the Integrated Review, is to “lead where we are best placed to do so”: to build on the historic advantages in both soft and hard power that have defined Britain’s global role throughout history.
That starts with economic ties: trade and investment. The creation of a dedicated investment forum, to expand business-to-business engagement in the region, has been employed successfully by other Western nations, like Italy. The City of London has a big role to play here – particularly given the strong track record of Central Asian companies listing on the London Stock Exchange.
Beyond this, we must also leverage our significant competitive advantage in areas such as judicial and legal reform, education, gender equality, environmental policy, and institution building. Through expanding our efforts on these fronts, with more creative use of our development budget, and expansion of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund’s good governance programme, we can play an active role in empowering these countries through their transitions in a way that is both pragmatic and consistent with our values.
Our diplomatic service, which has a presence in all five Central Asian republics, is well-positioned to execute this, but to do so, more ministerial focus is needed. Ministerial responsibility for Central Asia falls under the minister for Europe – far too broad a mandate to devote the requisite attention to this crucial region. We need to increase our use of prime ministerial special envoys, in this region and in others, to ensure that political will is matched by political capital.
Central Asia should be an integral part of the UK’s strategy – a link between our commitments to promoting security in Europe and expanding economic and political influence in Asia. Yet whether it applies to this region, or others, the central question is more fundamental: can British foreign policy show the agility and the creativity required to reverse our decline as an international power?
This is at the very heart of what will make Global Britain a success. For now, the jury is still out.
Richard Ottaway, former Conservative MP for Croydon South.
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